After leading a group of singers in a workshop at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, renowned Florida choral director André Thomas lingered to sign scores of his own compositions and arrangements.

The fans last Sunday included former students, devotees of choral music and a fair-haired woman who identified herself only as a St. Olaf graduate.

"Whenever I've seen white players do spirituals, I think, 'They're white. They have no rhythm,'" she said earnestly to him. "White people should not sing spirituals at all, but you don't seem to think that?"

Thomas, who has been teaching for 36 years, drew a breath. "No, not at all," he said. "If I think that, then I can't do German music. I can't do Bach. And I love Bach."

A champion of music, whether gospel, jazz or classical, Thomas is used to dealing with such discomfiting questions. And he remains patient when answering them. After all, he is a teacher at heart. Even when he conducts, as he has done on major concert stages worldwide and will again Friday at Orchestra Hall, he sees his job as sharing the ideas inculcated in him by his mother and the simple black folks he grew up with in Kansas.

"I think I was born a teacher," said the Kansas native, 58. "God said my purpose is to reach people, and the tool is music."

At Orchestra Hall, Thomas will conduct nearly 400 singers in VocalEssence's 21st annual Witness concert, saluting the legacy of spirituals and gospel.

"André brings a special quality of humanity to his work as a conductor and interpreter," said Philip Brunelle, founder of VocalEssence. "He has this gift to go deeply inside the music and the ability to let people know what it is that makes each work unique -- what it's trying to say to us. It's a God-given gift to bring us into this world of spirituals, which is a legacy for all Americans. André allows us all to embrace them as fully as we can."

From shame to celebration

Thomas, who earned a doctorate from the University of Illinois and holds an endowed chair at Florida State University, did not always have an appreciation for spirituals and gospel. In fact, when he was younger, he sometimes felt conflicted about the music and, especially, the diction.

But he not only overcame that shame by tenacious study, but has written a gospel guidebook, "Way Over in Beulah Lan'." In the book, he explains the history and context of spirituals as well as their interpretations.

"His clear language explaining the true history of dialect, that really hit me," said Twin Cities music man Sanford Moore, who attended Sunday's event. "When I think of dialect, I often think of the caricature. But his historiography, his explanations are so clear, they're a big help."

The Friday concert is likely to include Thomas' version of "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" as well as "Walk in the Light" and "If You're Happy/Amen."

"You can say, forget the past and embrace the future, or you can celebrate the past and enjoy the future," said Thomas. "I think we're too quick to throw away tradition. We think we've made this improvement and what we've done instead is throw away the jewel that we've been given. In a way, I see my humble efforts as a person trying to keep what's in the tradition still there."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390